By LESLEY MESSER, ABC News
(LOS ANGELES) — When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the United States in March, many struggled to figure how they could do their jobs while maintaining the safety guidelines outlined by experts.
For Jeff Smith, the vice president of entertainment at MaggieVision Productions, the company behind the ESPY Awards, figuring out how to put on the awards show was a daunting task.
The ESPYS, an annual celebration of athletic achievement, typically recognizes athletes from a variety of sports, as well as those whose philanthropic efforts have made a lasting impact in their communities. But as all major sporting events were canceled and calls for social distancing became more urgent, Smith and his team realized that they needed to overhaul their plan for the awards show.
“This can’t be a show where we’re trying to do a COVID-19 version of the ESPYs,” he said. “The biggest thing for us was figuring out a way where we could connect with the audience in the same way that we’re used to being able to do. I think the greatest thing about watching the ESPYs or being at ESPYs is watching the excitement of athletes who are fans of other sports have other people other teams that they never get to see.”
“Knowing that, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we bring together that missing sense of community that not only fans are missing, but at the athletes are missing as well?"” he said.
So, this year:
1. There will be more than one host for the second time ever: Smith and his team decided that to represent as many sports fans as possible, it was necessary to have more than one host.
This year, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will co-host the show with United States women’s national soccer team co-captain Megan Rapinoe and WNBA superstar Sue Bird.
In addition to representing a diverse fan base and opinions, Smith added that from a production standpoint, having multiple environments in which to shoot felt crucial.
“It’s not necessarily a compelling environment when you’re shooting in people’s homes,” he said. “We sort of lose that potential repetition of seeing the same face with the same seven books behind their head.”
It doesn’t hurt that Wilson, Rapinoe, and Bird have “very distinct points of view” and “energetic personalities,” he added.
2. Many awards will not be given out: The only awards that will be given out this year are what Smith has dubbed the “narrative awards,” as they highlight narratives of public service or courage. Those include the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, the Pat Tillman Award for Service, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which are usually given out during the ESPYs, as well as the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award and the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award.
“We can’t really give out a best team award when the teams haven’t finished their seasons, and you can’t have a best moment when there was no Masters or Wimbledon,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t be fair of us to anoint winners for things when everybody didn’t exist on a level playing field.”
Instead, Smith and his producers will “recognize a lot of great moments that happened in sports, but not in a way where we’ll focus on four contenders and a winner.”
3. You’ll see narrative award winners’ reactions: This year, viewers will get to see the reactions of the narrative award winners as producers inform them that they’re being honored.
“Being able to capture that moment where we tell them worked out amazingly well. We have a couple of these really incredibly emotional moments,” he said. “When the world comes back, and we’re able to put people back into a theater and do it right, we might want to include that, even though we don’t have to, because it was such a great discovery. That connection has really been great.”
4. There will be a few crafty camera tricks: “Because of the constraints that we’re in, everything is pre-produced. We don’t have the opportunity to get on planes or get people on planes to put people together,” Smith said. “We’re sending camera packages. Some are very simple. Some are cameras that we’re able to operate remotely so we can control it. And you know, we’ve really tried very hard to put together a show that when you’re watching it, it doesn’t look like the entire show was shot on people’s phones. And certainly, some content has been gathered that way!”
5. Expect to see a reflection on race in America and the death of George Floyd: The fatal arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month triggered protests against police brutality from coast to coast and sparked conversations about implicit bias and racism. These issues will be addressed at the ESPYs too, Smith said.
“We want to provide a platform for athletes to be able to speak directly to each other and to fans,” he said. “Our job [as producers] is to identify what’s important to the athletes and what means the most to them, and give them a platform to speak.”
6. There will be a tribute to Kobe Bryant: Although there will not be an in memoriam segment this year, the ESPYs will feature a tribute to late NBA star Kobe Bryant, who died alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash this past January.
“It’s a love letter to Kobe from the streets and the people of Los Angeles. It’s a celebration of what he brought to that city,” Smith said.
Rapper Snoop Dogg, an L.A. native, worked with producers on the piece, which will include footage of L.A. murals dedicated to Bryant.
“It’s about the legacy and the imprint that he left on the lives of the people of Los Angeles,” Smith added.
7. Celebs will be involved in new ways: Athletes and celebrities will get to show off different sides of themselves, Smith said.
“We’ve got Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Steph Curry in the show. We also have Halle Berry and Matthew McConaughey and Sterling K. Brown involved in the show,” he added. “We have still a great mix of the biggest names in sports the biggest names in entertainment.”
“Snoop coming in during the Kobe [tribute] gives us a really great musical element,” Smith said. “I think we’re gonna have… a lot of really fun athlete cameos and a couple of comedy pieces. I think the comedy things are gonna be really fun.”
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